Howie Mandell on his anxiety: I haven’t been that open about how dark it gets

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Howie Mandel’s been performing comedy since the 70s. I always remember him for putting a rubber glove over his head and inflating it, which is still funny, honestly. But I forget his true big break was as Dr. Wayne on St. Elsewhere. He was good on that show. What I somehow missed was that Howie was the voice of Gizmo in Gremlins and Gremlins 2! I feel like you guys keep this stuff from me on purpose. Despite my ignorance, Howie has been entertaining people for years. In 2006, Howie opened up about having OCD. It was a big admission because very few pubic people at that time had admitted to having the disorder. As with most things in Howie’s world, a lot of the discussion surrounding his OCD resulted in jokes. The reasons for that were two-fold: 1) because humor is how he deals with things and 2) because he’s never really told how dark it gets for him. In the latest issue of People, Howie explains how low his mental state gets, so people treated it lightly.

Howie Mandel has been living with severe anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder for nearly his entire life, but for the America’s Got Talent judge, every day is still a struggle.

“I’m living in a nightmare,” says Mandel, 65, who first exhibited symptoms of his OCD – repetitive and intrusive thoughts and fixations, often brought on by his debilitating fear of germs – as a child.

“I try to anchor myself. I have a beautiful family and I love what I do. But at the same time, I can fall into a dark depression I can’t get out of,” he tells PEOPLE for one of this week’s cover stories.

Wed to wife Terry since 1980, Mandel, who is dad to son Alex, 31, and daughters Riley, 28, and Jackie, 36 (who also suffers from anxiety and OCD), says the pandemic was especially triggering for his mental health.

“There isn’t a waking moment of my life when ‘we could die’ doesn’t come into my psyche,” he says. “But the solace I would get would be the fact that everybody around me was okay. It’s good to latch onto okay. But [during the pandemic] the whole world was not okay. And it was absolute hell.”

Diagnosed in his 40s, Mandel didn’t open up about his conditions until 2006, and admits he grappled with the decision to do so.

“My first thought was that I’ve embarrassed my family,” he recalls. “Then I thought, ‘Nobody is going to hire somebody who isn’t stable.’ Those were my fears.”

Mandel says he’s often used humor to get through the toughest moments. “My coping skill is finding the funny,” he says. “If I’m not laughing, then I’m crying. And I still haven’t been that open about how dark and ugly it really gets.”

[From People]

Howie said that when he was dealing with his OCD and anxiety privately, comedy saved him. He said the stage was his comfort zone and prevented him from turning inward. I get what he means about “finding the funny,” because that’s my coping mechanism too. The issue with that is once you make a joke, most people think you aren’t taking it seriously or it isn’t that serious. But like Howie said, “If I’m not laughing, then I’m crying.” I admit, I heard the jokes about Howie and his OCD and played along, thinking it was no big deal. I read this and realize how brave he is to face us each day and the service he is doing by shedding light on all this. I had no idea.

Later Howie addressed how people note what they consider “inconsistencies” such as his being able to hug someone or shake a hand. He said this is a common misconception with OCD. He can shake hands, but he can also become fixated after as well, like worrying he didn’t wash his hand enough and go into a hand washing loop for hours. Once again, Howie said he gets how that scenario is funny on the surface and he may even tell it as an anecdote. But the truth behind it is incredibly painful. I think that’s a really important lesson he brings us. It’s okay to laugh with someone’s pain when they give you that permission, but don’t dismiss it. It doesn’t go away just because they found a way to cope with it.

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Photo credit:People, Instagram and Avalon Red

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15 Responses to “Howie Mandell on his anxiety: I haven’t been that open about how dark it gets”

  1. Jezz says:

    Why on earth isn’t he on meds??? So heartbreaking to hear of this (needless?) suffering.

    • Merricat says:

      Meds don’t cancel OCD. They just make it tolerable.

    • Paperclip says:

      Meds only help so much, that’s why.

    • Esmom says:

      OCD is notoriously resistant to meds. My son battles anxiety/ocd and depression and while his meds help a ton with depression, so much trial and error with various meds, combinations and dosages, has barely made a dent in helping control his OCD.

      • Jezz says:

        Wow esmom, I had no idea. My anxiety is just so beautifully treated with meds that I can’t bear to see others suffer. I guess when there is more than one issue is my is that much more complicated to treat. All the best to your son.

      • Esmom says:

        Jezz, Same. And thank you.

  2. Esmom says:

    His that “Nobody is going to hire somebody who isn’t stable” is so sad. People with diabetes and other chronic illnesses typically don’t have that same fear. We need to keep reminding people that the brain is an organ just like a faulty pancreas and doesn’t mean that someone with mental illness is somehow at fault for not being able to just will their illness away. Sigh.

    • IMUCU says:

      It is really hard not to feel less than. I always worry about how much to reveal about myself at work, because mental health challenges need to be normalized just like any other physical health problem. Right now my anxiety has been QUITE high, which then makes my depression worse. I can walk around and hide it, as I have most of my life, but at what cost? I just feel stuck in my current headspace, and I know it will pass eventually, but I feel so tired by it.

  3. Coraline says:

    Thank you, Howie. When he spoke about how he constantly worries that he or a loved one could die at any moment, I felt that. I have this kind of anxiety, too. And no one, aside from my partner, has any idea that a good 75% of my waking life is spent worrying and agonizing about how someone in my inner circle might die. I seem pretty happy go lucky, play lots of sports, have a great job and friends. Sometimes, I just have a good cry at how sh…. it is to have doomsday playing nonstop in my brain. I am so grateful for my partner, who helps me when I get so desperate.

    • megs283 says:

      Coraline, have you tried medication? Sertraline really helps me for those kind of intrusive thoughts. I’m still me – just not as anxious. xo.

    • Tara says:

      I also have OCD, though it manifests as Scrupulosity. I am intimately familiar with awful, invasive, seemingly unrelentingly terrible, thoughts. Have you explored cognitive behavioral therapy combined with medication? It’s the most recommended treatment regiment, and I speak from experience. I am fortunate that my medication works; I have been able to be on it for 18 years. I also did CBT, which with the medication, definitely made a difference. I wouldn’t have been able to pursue exposure and response therapy without its aid. The most important detail about seeking therapy was going to someone who specialized in OCD and CBT; I still use the strategies and tools she gave me. I wish you peace on your journey!

    • Marigold says:

      It is so difficult when loving people hurts because you are afraid to lose them. That is me. It started the day my kids were born and I’ve been on antidepressants ever since to control the anxiety. It is still there but I can function like a normal human. But it’s always there. I’m sort of a workaholic because being too still with no structure is hard.

  4. SusanRagain says:

    I like Howie, read his book and he talks about this very well.
    My nephew at 9 y/o was diagnosed with severe anxiety.
    Thankfully, as more people are educated about these issues, more will seek help, I hope.

    One old fool in the family responded “Well, tell him to toughen up!”
    Damn. He was 9. 9 years old. A sweet, scared, little kid at the time.

    What is wrong with people?
    It costs nothing to be kind.

  5. Chip says:

    My 14 year old daughter has OCD & severe anxiety and it is hell to watch her go through it. She’s got a team of doctors but progress is so slow. Heartbreaking.
    And yes- she’s tried all the meds! Finally found a combo that doesn’t produce horrible side effects. Unfortunately, the meds aren’t perfect but are better than nothing.

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